Religious Leaders On Anti-Muslim Frenzy: “Silence Is Not An Option”

The Islamic Society of North American today convened an “emergency interfaith summit” of religious leaders, which produced a statement unveiled to the press this afternoon.

The press briefing, at which ISNA released “Beyond Park51: Religious Leaders Denounce Anti-Muslim Bigotry And Call For Respect for America’s Tradition of Religious Liberty,” had a great feeling of urgency to it. Jewish and Muslim holidays are converging with the ugliest displays of religious hatred as the 9/11 anniversary approaches, and, as ISNA president Ingrid Mattson pointed out, as school starts this week, many Muslim children are anxious and fearful that their classmates “will look at them like aliens.”

A number of religious leaders, including Mattson, spoke at the press briefing, which was one of the most highly attended press events relating to religion that I’ve seen — except for events hosted by religious right groups. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, speaking to evangelical Christians engaging in or promoting anti-Muslim bigotry, said, “Shame on you . . . as an evangelical I say you bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ.”

Many speakers, including Cizik, chided unnamed purveyors of anti-Muslim fervor as antagonists of the First Amendment. Richard Killmer of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture called it “a blight on America’s spirit and soul.” Several, including Cizik and Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, noted how their own traditions thrived from the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, a freedom they said people in their own faith traditions now seek to trample for Muslims.

David Saperstein, executive director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, one of the groups that organized the meeting with Justice Department officials to urge a more robust law enforcement response to the rise in anti-Muslim activity, expressed hope interfaith groups and the government could “work out the most effective way to parallel actions to lift up a clear image that this has no place in American life.”

The anti-Muslim prejudice that has reached fever pitch over the past few months, and against which these activists were pushing back, did not emerge out of nowhere. Films like Obsession and Relentless — and many of the “experts” interviewed in those documentaries, have been disseminated to millions of Americans through churches, synagogues, and political campaigns. Mattson lamented the lack of resources to respond to those sorts of distortions about Islam, but, she added, “it really shouldn’t be only our responsibility. There are so many so-called ‘experts’ about Islam [on television] but these are people who have no expertise, no academic credentials, no true institutional representation.” Mattson — singling out television — said the media ignores available resources that could provide accurate depictions of Islam, and “there needs to be more of a partnership between the people who have the accurate information and those who are lifting up who is an expert on Islam in the general media.”

That, of course, holds out great — possibly unrealistic — hope for the 24/7 cable news beast. But given the number of reporters at this event, perhaps that message might start penetrating . . . somewhere. In the meantime, said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “we have to stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters and say, this is not OK.”